Controlling your dog is the first part of your management plan. Young dogs (and some older ones) rarely make wise choices if left to their own devices — they do what feels good at the moment.
It’s All a Test
When you first bring your dog home, she is constantly testing, and with her behavior, asking the question “What happens if I do this?” She learns what works and what doesn’t based on the immediate consequences of her actions. When she gets away with chewing something inappropriate or urinating behind the couch, she has already gotten her positive reinforcement. She had a need, and it was fulfilled. Voila — the seed of a bad habit!
More than 80 percent of dogs in shelters were surrendered because of behavior problems like chewing and inappropriate elimination in the house. Nearly 100 percent of the surrenders could have been avoided with good planning and management.
By simply controlling your dog and not allowing her the opportunity to practice her vices, you can prevent her from developing a multitude of bad habits. You have two primary options for controlling your dog: supervision or confinement.
Supervision means that your dog is in close proximity to you. Until he’s keeping himself out of trouble and responding reliably to commands, he should have a dragline attached to his collar so that you can get control of him and enforce commands quickly without a prolonged and hysterical chase around the dining-room table.
If you’re involved in an activity that is too engrossing to pay attention to your dog while you pursue it, like surfing the Internet or reading the paper, tether him to you or near you. There’s a limited amount of damage he can do six feet away from you. If you feel confident that you can let him have a little freedom, have plenty of your aversives handy so that you can interrupt him when he’s thinking about taking off with the throw pillow, rather than when he’s shredding it with abandon.
Along with supervision, confinement is a necessary management tool. For many, if not most dogs, the crate is the easiest, most affordable, and most practical confinement choice. In addition to the obvious uses of keeping your dog out of trouble when you’re not home and helping with house-breaking, your dog’s crate can help you manage him when you are home as well.
If you find evidence of a doggie misdeed but didn’t catch her in the act, roll up a newspaper and smack yourself in the butt. Repeat “I wasn’t watching my puppy” five times and promise yourself not to give her the chance to make the same mistake again.
In the beginning, and maybe for a while, depending on your dog, you may have to crate him even for brief trips to the bathroom or to answer the phone. Some dogs just can’t handle the freedom to make their own choices, so hang in there and give him the management he needs until he’s ready for the privilege of more freedom.
Based on his success (or lack thereof) in his current area, expand his options and boundaries a little at a time. By increasing his freedom gradually, you can catch any problem behavior before it becomes a solid habit. Especially during adolescence, you should expect periods of regression, so don’t get discouraged if you occasionally have to put him back under “lock-down” for a few weeks and start over on his boundary-expansion program.
Your dog’s crate should be used to keep him out of trouble, not to punish him for getting into it. Punishments should always occur at the same time the unwanted behavior does for your dog to make the connection. Crates are a fact of your dog’s life. You want him to like being in there.
Listen to Your Dog
Your dog will tell you when he’s ready for more freedom. The way he’ll tell you is that he won’t make any mistakes or have any accidents in his current area for a period of at least three weeks. Like fine wine, a good dog can’t be rushed! Be patient and wait until he’s ready before you start broadening his horizons. If he makes a mistake in his new area, revert back to the last setup that he was successful with. Wait two or three weeks and try again.